Experimenter (2015): the banality of evil and our willingness to obey authority

Imagine you find yourself at Yale laboratory room with another participator and a man in a lab coat who is giving you the instructions about the study you’re about to participate in (a study that you believe is about memory and learning). You get to choose between two pieces of paper – and of course you’re relieved when you find out that you drew a paper that assigns you to the role of the teacher. The other poor bastard gets to be the learner, strapped to the seat in a separate room from you, and has to answer a series of questions. And whenever he gives you a wrong answer, you are to deliver an electric shock that gets increasingly higher with each wrong answer. Your only instruction is to go through all the questions, to finish the study you agreed to participate in. Even when the other participant starts to scream in insufferable pain and demands to be set free, your instructor tells you to continue. Then, suddenly, the screaming stops – did he die? He stops answering your questions. Which counts as the wrong answer – it requires another shock. You’re still told to proceed. Do you proceed?

Most of us would like to think that we would not. That we would stand up in protest, that we would disobey the orders we were given by an authority figure – that we would choose a well-being of another human being over blindly following the orders. Most of us would like to think that – but that’s not what most people did when such an experiment took place in Yale laboratories in 1961.  Around 65% of all subjects went all the way and continued to administer shocks up to the highest levels – levels that would without any doubt kill the learner if he would actually be receiving these shocks.

Milgram, a son of Jewish immigrants who fled from Eastern Europe during WWII, tried to understood how such a horrendous crime, a genocide could ever happened. How did all those people just went along with it? Are we really just plain evil – or are we just unable (or unwilling) to disobey authority or (God-forbid!) think and make decisions on our own? What he found out with this thought-provoking and controversial experiment (that brought him both fame and devastating criticism, particularly about his experiment being unethical), was that “the essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and he therefore no longer sees himself as responsible for his action. ” So what we’re essentially left with is the banality of evil – a concept introduced to the world by political theorist Hannah Arendt who reported on Eichmann’s trial in the early 60’s. But what did Arendt meant when she described Eichmann as being evil in the most banal way and what did his banality of evil had in common with most of Milgram’s test subjects? And what (if I may be so bold) do all of them have in common with the Europeans (yes, Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia, I am looking at you) who are currently spreading anger, hatred and intolerance among people, and would probably, without a second thought, kill all (already completely dehumanized by our politicians and the media) Syrian refugees? If I borrow the quote about Arendt’s scandalous work from Judith Butler herself:

She did not think he acted without conscious activity, but she insisted that the term “thinking” had to be reserved for a more reflective mode of rationality. To have “intentions” in her view was to think reflectively about one’s own action as a political being, whose own life and thinking is bound up with the life and thinking of others. What had therefore become banal – and astonishingly so – was the failure to think. Indeed, at one point the failure to think is precisely the name of the crime that Eichmann commits. We might think at first that this is a scandalous way to describe his horrendous crime, but for Arendt the consequence of non-thinking is genocidal, or certainly can be.

One part biopic about social psychologist Stanley Milgram, and one part exploration of the mechanisms behind our behaviour (especially our conformity, our willingness to obey authority), Experimenter really couldn’t get released at a better time; at a time that a lot of us are asking ourselves the same question as Milgram did: “How can the people just go along with it?”

As far as the film itself is considered, it would work much better if it would remain more focused on the experiment and the controversy that followed it, and left Milgram’s personal and academic life alone (however smartly it manages to avoid all the clichés that are usually present in biopics). But because the film tries to be both a biopic and an insightful study of human conformity, it ends up being somewhat messy – the whole idea behind the experiment (and the criticism (as well as accolades) that followed after Milgram finally managed to publish his study) is complex enough, and when you throw in his other (not nearly as important) experiments and a few other personal details, the strongest and most important message gets lost in midst of all these different informations and ideas. And because of that the film ends up being not as effective as it could be (although it’s still fascinating, educating, provocative and relevant enough that it manages to stick with the viewer) and probably a little hard to follow for anyone who isn’t familiar with his (or Arendt’s, whose banality of evil is referenced at least twice) work.

Experimenter is thus less about the story and more about ideas. You will be horrified by how easily everyday people can be led into torturing another human being and confused by their answers to why they didn’t stop and went all the way. “I was told to.” The film raises many questions, about our will, morality and the choices we make (because, you know, you can always say “I don’t want to.”), but doesn’t (or rather, can’t) answer many of them.

Film’s cinematography is cold and it’s mise-en-scene minimalistic (the scenes sometimes look almost completely empty), as if it tries to look like a real-life experiment in a controlled environment, with as little outside variables as possible. There are also quite a few interesting (although not always equally good) directing choices – one of them being Dr. Milgram’s speaking into the camera, as if he is delivering us a lecture (as if he is the teacher, and we are his learners): something that Peter Sargaard, whose whole performance is praise-worthy, manages to do brilliantly.  But one of my favourite scenes has to be the one with a live elephant walking behind Milgram while he’s in the middle of his monologue – a clear metaphor to “an elephant in the room”, which in my opinion symbolizes how the majority of us don’t want to acknowledge that evil is, in fact, all around us. The real (however banal) evil is in all of us who blindly follow others and who so rarely stop to think: “Is this really the right thing to do? The moral thing to do?”.

The Basics:
Directed by: Michael Almereyda
Written by: Michael Almereyda
Starring: Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, Jim Gaffigan, John Palladino
Running Time: 90 minutes
Year: 2015
Rating: 6

Crimson Peak (2015): an all surface, no substance Victorian Gothic ghost story

“Ghosts are real – this much I know…” There’s no doubt that this is Guillermo del Toro’s best film since his 2006 masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, but before you get too excited: Crimson Peak never succeeds at reaching the the same greatness and what we are essentially left with is a film that looks good on the surface, but has no real substance underneath the magnificent mise-en-scène. And even though it is clear that del Toro tries to pay his tribute to Victorian Gothic movies like Rebecca and The Innocents with the narrative that comes across as a mixture of Brontë sisters and Edgar Allan Poe, it never quite reaches the point of being as scary, mysterious and ghostly as it strives to be. Which is why, even though visually breathtaking and very well acted, the film ends up being soulless, frustratingly predictable and essentially very disappointing.

The rest of the review contains spoilers!

Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is a young and aspiring writer in 19th century Buffalo, New York. She comes across as a typical fairytale heroine who loses her mother at a very young age and is brought up by her caring and protective father who seems to have only one weakness – he obviously lacks some wisdom that seemingly only mothers possess: how to teach your daughter to be careful around charming and handsome strangers that appear out of nowhere and try to sweep them off their feet. Still, considering that Edith is a highly educated woman who spends her every waking hour writing a novel and who looks up to women such as Jane Austen and Mary Shelley, it doesn’t seem very plausible when she immediately and unconditionally falls in love with a mysterious and somewhat shady Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). And after her father dies in mysterious circumstances she also does not seem to take a lot of time to grieve (let alone doubt at the fact that his brutal death was an accident) – she immediately cuts all ties with her New York friends and (what is perhaps even more perplexing) almost instantly forgets about her career as a writer. Because even though she comes across as an independent woman who more than anything else values knowledge, books and possibility of freely expressing one’s thoughts, literary creativity and imagination, she willingly throws all of this away the minute a man she finds intriguing shows some interest in her. And we are once again left with a story where the main message seems to be that what any woman secretly wants, no matter how independent and free spirited she otherwise seems to be, is a husband. After she marries Thomas, they quickly move to his secluded home in England, called Crimson Peak (a mansion that will often spark some associations with Kubrick’s The Shining and with Hitchcock’s Manderley in Rebecca) – a home that he shares with his chillingly cold and hateful sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain).

It’s not long before Edith starts to suspect that things are not as they seem: the house is haunted, the siblings weirdly codependent (this part may be one of the most transparent ones for the viewer; we are living in an age of Game of Thrones after all; and as if del Toro wanted to acknowledge this fact, the scene where Edith finds out about the brother-sister incest is almost the same as the scene when Bran gets pushed off the window after he accidentally sees the royal twins making love) and Edith soon starts to feel suffocated by the dark and resentful presence of Lucille, as well as with her husband’s distance and weird disappearances in the middle of the night. A few encounters with bloody, ghostly creatures also don’t help with her settling in the new environment. Nevertheless, it soon gets clear that no matter how many dead creatures are present in the house, it’s the living that she should be afraid of.

Another story-twist that felt all too predictable was what Thomas and Lucille’s intention with Edith turned out to be. Of course they were after the money – and after that revelation it also came as no surprise that she was not their first victim. The only thing in this storyline that worked as it should was the fact that instead of a crazy wife locked in a tower, there was a crazy sister roaming through the creaking halls of the haunted house, trying to make Edith drink her poisonous tea and playing piano under the watchful eye of a horrifying, Dorian Grey-like portrait of their dead mother.

Mia Wasikowska, who with her pale face and long blonde hair managed to embody a smart, but also childlike innocent and naive romantic soul, couldn’t be a better choice to play Edith and Tom Hiddleston was absolutely spectacular as the aristocratic Thomas Sharpe – he seems to shine best in the roles of somewhat troubled men who are battling their inner demons, trying to hide their dark secrets. It therefore came as no surprise that he managed to make this character as human and graceful as possible – no matter how terrible the person that was hidden under the mask of this elegant, aristocratic Englishman was supposed to be. And while Chastain definitely surprised as an incestuous and murderous Lucille, it became clear as the film progressed that she doesn’t possess quite enough wickedness and viciousness that was needed for such a character. As someone who was supposed to embody a mixture of Black Widow and Snow White’s Evil Queen, Chastain didn’t seem to be completely up to the task and I think an actress such as Eva Green would manage to make Lucille a lot more terrifying and the ending knife battle a lot more memorable.

The Basics:
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Written by: Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnman
Running Time: 119 minutes
Year: 2015
Rating: 6

My Skinny Sister (2015): adolescence, sisterhood and anorexia

Scandinavian cinema really knows how to dig deep into human emotions and relationships, dissecting them to the very core. They are not at all afraid to show us the deepest, ugliest, most hidden parts of what being human is all about. Because let’s face it – we are all deeply flawed and troubled individuals – and while most mainstream films decide to overlook this aspect of humanity or include it only for the purpose of preaching to the audience how not to behave, this film fully embraces the fact that no matter how perfect we may seem, we are all deeply troubled, imperfect and fragile.

And in our competitive, capitalistic society, adolescence has became the peak point of our frailty. This is the time when we form our identity, when we are trying to figure out who we are and who we would like to become, but also when we are under dangerously strong influence of our peers, our significant Others, as well as under a great influence of the media. There is hardly anyone more perceptive to the images and beauty standards that the media imposes upon us than teenagers – whether it is something as “innocent” as fashion trends, or something quite more serious and potentially dangerous as types of bodies that are considered attractive and desirable. Most of the teenagers make it through this difficult life stage – but then there are some of who completely fall apart. And while there is a long list of films portraying alcoholism, drug abuse and other forms of self-harm among teenagers, there is almost no coming-of-age stories that would focus on eating disorders, even though they are unbelievably common –  especially (although not exclusively) among teenage girls.

Sanna Lenken, who herself battled self-esteem issues that ended in a long-term struggle with anorexia, recognized this absence of talking about eating disorders in the film medium and decided to dedicate her first feature film to a teenage girl Katja, a competitive ice-skater, who completely breaks down under the pressure that is imposed upon most athletes, but also female bodies in general. However, what I found particularly great about this film is that the story does not revolve solely around Katja, the perfect daughter, student and talented competitive ice-skater who is secretly starving herself to death, but around her whole family – particularly around her younger, pre-teen sister Stella, who admires and idolizes Katja, until she one day walks in on her throwing up in a bathroom after being forced into eating a celebratory meal. It is clear that Stella does not fully understands on what she just walked in – she somehow knows it is something bad and feels that she should tell her parents, but she does not know what having anorexia or bulimia means and the consequences it can have. And Katja, panicking about being caught, does everything in her power to keep Stella quiet – she blackmails her into keeping her secret and Stella, too young for carrying around such a burden, a secret that is affecting her sister’s health and is weakening the dynamics of their whole family, is beginning to fall apart, losing focus in school and getting lower grades. When she is found destroying school’s property, one of the teachers finally contacts her parents – and the truth comes out. But that is where the troubles only begin – because the parents do not know how to approach the problem either, since they naively think that they could cure her by simply take a family vacation and spend some much needed family time together.

Rebecka Josephson is a complete revelation as Stella, a chubby little sister with a big heart, who has a crush on Katja’s 35 year-old ice-skating instructor and who is secretly writing dirty poems and prank-calling her big sister, trying to communicate what she cannot tell her in person. Lenken also deserves all the praise that she can get for writing such a character – a character that seems so real and easy to relate to, but is at the same time all too rarely present in films that we usually consume. The two lead actresses work in perfect harmony and while the whole film is an emotional roller-coaster that will make you laugh and bring you to tears, it was this realistic portrayal of sisterhood that resonated with me the most. I have not yet seen a film that would so truthfully capture what being a sister is like. There is love, hate, jealousy, resentment, competition for parents’ attention and approval, worrying for each other’s well-being… And it is exactly this inclusion of the whole family into the story that makes this film so great and powerful – because Lenken manages to acknowledge that the victim of this horrifying disease is not only Katja, but the whole family – and especially her chubby little sister.

Sanna Lenken made a wonderful debut about sisterhood and the vulnerable teenage years during which we so often manage to become our own worst enemy. Although the film begins to struggle in the third act and does not bring the narrative to a satisfying conclusion, the heartbreaking and unbelievably accurate portrayal of the damage that having a family member with an eating disorder does to a family, makes up for the unsatisfying ending. What we are left with is an admirable first feature that will not leave your thoughts for days and will leave you in anticipation of Lenken’s next film projects.

The Basics:
Directed by: Sanna Lenken
Written by: Sanna Lenken
Starring: Rebecka Josephson, Amy Deasismont, Henrik Norlen, Annika Hallin
Running Time: 95 minutes
Year: 2015
Rating: 7